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Tim Blake Nelson offers listeners of The Hollywood Reporter‘s It Happened in Hollywood podcast a rare glimpse into the filmmaking process of Joel and Ethan Coen, the idiosyncratic brothers behind some of the best-loved films of the past 30 years.
Nelson, who trained as an actor at Juilliard, made his first big splash in 2000 with the Coens’ Depression-era musical fable O Brother, Where Art Thou?, playing a dim-witted prison escapee alongside George Clooney and John Turturro.
“It’s all very friendly and genial and clear. Ethan will say, ‘Maybe … I don’t know. Maybe pull it back a little? Just do it again,'” Nelson says of the duo’s laconic directing style. “Or Joel will come up and say, ‘I think we need more here. I think he’s got to be a little more excited about the baptism [scene]. Yeah. Let’s go again.’ And then they chortle behind the camera. It’s all very much like you’re kind of hanging out.”
The Coens had a way of charming their actors into doing things they might not have felt comfortable with on another director’s set. In one key O Brother sequence, which mirrors the raid on the Wicked Witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz, the three male leads stumble upon a Ku Klux Klan rally with their faces covered in dirt.
“I just thought, ‘Geez, Joel, we’re really going to do this in blackface?'” Nelson recalls. “But it’s so benign. Their humor, even the violence. I know this sounds strange, but it’s always so good-natured. It’s not that they get away with it — you want them to get away with it. They’re loved for it.”
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